Mindsets are fundamental to the way both students and educators perceive their respective academic journeys. We tend to hear phrases like “Just have a positive mindset about this” or “You can do this, just think positively” and then some phrases like “I just can’t do Maths” or even worse “You will never be able to do Maths”. These phrases may seem simple and pseudo-scientific, but they actually reveal a very important cognitive principle. This principle is known as Growth and Fixed Mindset. The theory supporting the Growth and Fixed Mindset principle was developed by professor Carol Dweck and popularised in her book Mindset.
The Changing Brain
Before we introduce the concepts of growth and fixed mindset, we first need to mention neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the technical cognitive term used to describe the ability of the human brain to change. With the development of modern neuroscience and psychology, it is known that our brains never stop changing. This is fantastic news for both students and educators as this has the implication that our brains are capable of changing to do things we thought we couldn’t do.
Growth and Fixed Mindset
We know that our brains keep changing for the rest of our lives, but this does not always happen in a positive manner. At the most basic level, a growth mindset is a characteristic of a person who believes that they are able to perform a certain task while a fixed mindset is a characteristic of a person who believes that they cannot perform a certain task. These so-called mindsets are directly linked to the brain and its plasticity or ability to change. When you have a growth mindset you are stimulating your brain to be able to change and adapt, and be more effective at what you are busy with. A fixed mindset will have the opposite effect. It will hinder your brain from changing, therefore becoming less effective. According to Haimovitz and Dweck:
“A growing body of literature shows us that the mindset children hold about abilities and intelligence can set them on different trajectories of motivation and learning. These patterns are reflected in students’ achievement: Holding more of a growth mindset predict better academic performance, particularly for students facing challenges.”
It is tempting to conclude that mindsets are each person’s own responsibility – and in this case – the responsibility of our students. While this is not entirely false, many studies (but especially that of Hooper et al.) study the effect of an educator’s mindset and how their students perceive this mindset and therefore how it affects their own. In this study, 3 965 students evaluated the mindset of their Maths educators to determine the mindset culture of each classroom. This was an important indicator of whether the educators supported a fixed or growth mindset in their classrooms.
One of the most prominent indicators of a growth versus fixed mindset is how failure and the resulting feedback is firstly understood and secondly acted upon. This was an important factor in the study of Hooper et al. as they interviewed the educators to determine the manner in which the educators responded to both students who struggle and those who excel. Unsurprisingly, they found that educators who modeled a growth mindset toward setbacks and feedback had students who saw “getting stuck as part of the larger process of developing one’s abilities” (Haimovitz and Dweck 2017). Where educators had a fixed mindset toward setbacks and feedback, the opposite was true and students could potentially see setbacks as indicative of their own shortcomings.
It is evident from the work of professor Carol Dweck, and a large body of literature supporting her theories, that the growth versus fixed mindset concept is paramount to 21st-century education. Also evident from the research discussed in this article is the need for both educator and student to assume a growth mindset. Below are some indicators of a growth mindset in the classroom setting that you can use to orientate yourself for the year.
An educator with a growth mindset will:
- teach for understanding;
- give feedback that enhances understanding;
- provide students with opportunities to revise their work and display their growing understanding;
- regularly send messages about how effort and struggle are part of learning; and
- scaffold this message with an emphasis on how educators will collaborate with students in the learning process.
This article is merely a brief introduction to the fundamental concept of growth and fixed mindsets as they pertain to educators and the classroom. We have a brand new and exciting course engaging the science of how students learn. Part of this course explores the function and role of growth and fixed mindsets. If you would like to learn more about this crucial 21st-century concept, click here to find out more.
Nicolas Matthee is an educational researcher at ITSI. His work focuses on Cognitive Psychology, Educational Neuroscience, and Pedagogy. He further specialises as a Ritual Studies specialist with a focus on Ritual, Liturgical and Thanatological Studies and how they relate to different technologies and cyber contexts.
He is a research associate at the Department of Practical Theology at the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Pretoria. Non-academic related expertise includes game and 3D graphics development for computer and mobile environments.